The yew is the longest-lived of all European conifers. It can achieve heights of 15-20m and the oldest individuals are estimated to be 1200-1500 years old. Yew trees have been highly respected and valued from pre-historic times, and the species is also regarded as a symbol of death, and of immortality. The wood itself, tough and durable, has been used in making lutes, and especially in the manufacture of longbows and crossbows. The war-filled history of Europe, with its demand for these weapons, lead to the almost total destruction of yew stands.
Thus it is a rare species in the wild. However, it is extremely popular as an evergreen ornamental, and there are dozens of varieties available, varying in shape, size, habit, and colour. It has been widely used in formal gardens, as a subject for topiary, tolerating trimming into geometric and other ornamental shapes.
The common yew grows naturally in North Africa, South-East Asia and in most of Europe. It is somewhat frost tender and grows naturally in Finland only on Ahvenanmaa (Åland Island). When planted inland it is frost tender. At Mustila it survives the winters only as a flattened shrub under snow cover.